Romantic relationships are exactly like emulsifications – you need a combination of ingredients that holds together, and ultimately, that doesn’t split. It needs to be smooth. And generally, if a relationship isn’t smooth, if there are too many bumps in the road that make it unsafe and uncomfortable, we need to take a look at the ingredients involved. In other words, the two individuals who make up the couple.
All relationships can be reduced to how near or far people want to be to each other (in other words, closeness) and how much they want to reach out to each other (in other words, dependency). This is the heart of our attachments to each other, and of attachment theory. Babies are completely dependent, so they have inbuilt ways of seeking closeness to adults – that’s why they coo, that’s why they crawl, that’s why they cry when they need to be fed. Our early experiences of how we were responded to feed into our later feelings about closeness in adult relationships, especially with our partners. Not everyone has the same capacity for closeness, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what is wrong is not having a partner who can meet your personal needs when it comes to this – because you’ll end up stressed, frustrated and unhappy. And those are ingredients that should never feature in any relationship, for the sake of our mental and physical health.
Although this idea about the right amount of closeness and distance sounds like a pretty straightforward recipe for romantic relationships, unfortunately, it’s not that easy to execute. Although we all have a need to form close bonds, the way people create them differs. People naturally have different relationship styles – or attachment styles. The boiled down version is this: some of us prefer more distance in relationships (what’s referred to in attachment lingo as avoidant), others prefer more closeness (what’s referred to as anxious). The problem is that often these two very different types of people end up in relationships together, which can be very unstable. But the science of emulsification can be helpful for understanding what goes on here: the molecular make up of anxious and avoidant individuals makes togetherness difficult in the relationship – simply because each person repels the other’s natural tendencies. Just like an unstable emulsion, this couple will quickly separate unless they are constantly shaken. But there’s a thin line between a gentle jiggle and rocking foundations – often communication quickly spirals into explosive arguments, where both individuals forget what they’re fighting about in the first place and end up going round in circles. If you find yourself in a relationship like this, try gently moving towards togetherness. Try to find ways to effectively communicate your expectations about closeness, and also, to respond to your partner’s needs – without getting stressed. This is one of the best ways to stabilise your relationship and stop it from splitting.
The emulsifier in any relationship, what binds people together, is the need for closeness, dependency and intimacy – it must work for both individuals in the couple. In the words of Hellmann’s (because mayonnaise is my favourite emulsion): this is what will make your relationship real.
Take a look at my recipe for mellow mint and halloumi pesto, which was inspired by this life lesson.